Saturday, 6 October 2018

Driving in America - my personal guide for Brits driving in the USA

Drive on the right!

That seems to be the standard advice when you look up 'What do I need to know when I drive in the USA?'. After all, everything else is in English, right? How hard can it be?

This is a guide for Brits/UK people who are travelling to America and are going to be driving. If you are an American, all of this should be obvious to you. It wasn't to me! Also, if you are coming from another country e.g. Australia or RSA, things like 'Americans call it x, we call it y' etc might not apply to you.

Note: This is MY INTERPRETATION AND EXPERIENCE. This may be wrong. This is not legal advice! States have 'driver's handbooks' on the internet - you can look them up to find out what the actual rules and regulations are - not just what some guy told you on the internet!

Also Note - traffic laws are defined at the STATE level. Laws can be different from Florida to California to Texas - check first!

My Top 10 "You need to know these - it may save you trouble" hints

(These are the 'Wow - what do I do here?' or 'Avoid getting a ticket/fine' ones)

1. The 4-Way / All-Way / Stop-sign intersection

At a 3 or 4 way crossing/crossroads, you may see a sign 'STOP' sign with 'All-Way' or '3-way' on it. For this, you stop, then you go in the order you arrived at the junction. If there were people stopped at the line before you, let them go then it's your turn. After that, everyone goes in order of arrival.
For some reason, most driving guides don't tell you about this one.

2. The 4-way with no stop signs and the parallel white lines 1 meter apart.

You may come to a cross junction with parallel white lines about a meter (3 feet) apart on all the roads. This means you don't need to come to a stop, but if you need to know who goes first, the 'go in order of arrival' often applies.

3. You can turn right at a red light - but there are rules!

In most places, if you come to a complete stop first, you can turn right at a red light - as long as you are 100% sure there is nothing coming. If in doubt, just wait. In my experience, if you want to wait for the light to turn green, then people don't honk their horns at you and just wait.
From what I understand, if you turn right on a red light, if there is an accident, it's pretty much your fault.
You can turn left on red but only into a one-way street. I've never tried this.
Look out for 'no turn on red' signs - this means what it says.

4. Move over when passing a stopped emergency vehicle on the hard shoulder

If you see a police, fire or other emergency vehicle stopped on the hard shoulder, then move over one lane to the left so you have at least one clear lane with no traffic between you and them. This is a good safety thing, but it's a legal requirement in many states.

5. Don't pass a school bus IN ANY WAY if its red lights are flashing

If you see one of those yellow school buses stopped, with its red lights flashing, you must NOT pass it. This doesn't just mean no overtaking it, it means you can't drive past it even if you are both facing opposite directions. The bus flashes its red lights (and often puts out a red STOP sign) when unloading children. This is a safety thing. They are really hot on this. Don't even think it. Not even at 1mph.

6. Indicate all lane changes on highways and freeways.

I indicate to pull out in the UK, but I don't always indicate to 'pull back in' when I've overtaken something on a motorway and I'm away down the road. You need to indicate any lane change in the US as it's classed as changing lanes, not 'pulling back in'. I've actually been ticketed for this - it was a genuine 'What did I do wrong, officer?' moment.

7. Don't park next to a fire hydrant - or red lines on the kerb

Pretty much what it says - fire hydrants may not have kerb markings next to them, but you still can't park next to one.

8. Put your lights on when it's raining

How heavy does the rain need to be? The usual advice here is, if you have your wipers on, put your lights on.

9. HOV or diamonds painted in a lane means car-shares only

If you have more than one person in the car (sometimes you need 3 people but this is shown) then you can drive in these lanes. HOV means 'High Occupancy Vehicle'. This is why these lanes are often empty when the other 5 (or more - US freeways can have LOTS of lanes) are jammed with traffic moving at 2mph. If you're on your own (and 99.9999999% of Americans are driving alone, then you can't use them)

10. US Police pull up BEHIND you - and want to see your hands and your documents!

If you get pulled over, US police will do it by coming up behind you and switching lights (and sometimes a quick blast of the siren). Keep an eye on your mirror - it's not clever to be driving along ignoring them. If they're behind you, it's you they want to pull over.
When you stop, they'll pull up behind you. Keep your hands on the wheel. Although you MUST carry your documents (License, rental details, insurance etc) in the car with you, don't duck down and try and get them. The police might think you're going for a gun! Wind down the front window then keep your hands on the wheel. One tip, Americans do not understand sarcasm. Policemen especially don't...

Useful Terms and definitions:

  • Pavement: This is what Americans drive on! Pedestrians walk on the sidewalk. You may see signs saying 'drive on the pavement'. This does not mean what you first think it does!
  • Sidewalk: This is what Americans walk on - what Brits call the pavement.
  • Median: The part between the two directions on a freeway. They tend not to have barriers/armco - just big bits of grass. Even though it looks possible, don't be tempted to U-turn over it - not allowed!
  • Semi: This is a large articulated truck. You might know it as an artic. Note that Americans don't know what a 'lorry' is - they call them trucks - both the small pick-ups and the huge 50ft trailers.
  • Trunk (of a car): Brits call it the boot
  • Hood (of a car): Brits call it the bonnet
  • Auto: A car. Americans tend not to call cars cars: They tend to use 'car' for a tram or railway carriage.
  • Shifter: Gearstick for an automatic car. 'Driving Stick' means to drive a manual car - they don't have many of those. 99.999% of cars are automatics.
  • Parking meters: "quarter"=25c, "nickel"=5c, "dime"=10c. confusingly, dimes are smaller than nickels.
  • "Misdemeanour" and "Felony" - one is more serious than the other. Don't try and get either.
  • License Plate: Brits call it a number plate.
  • "Fender Bender" - a Fender is what Brits call a Bumper. A Fender Bender is a low speed collision. Some states have signs saying 'Fender Bender? Move vehicles from travel lanes'
  • "Travel Lane" - a lane on a freeway that isn't the hard shoulder
  • Freeway: What Brits call a Motorway.
  • Interstate: A type of long distance freeway that often goes across multiple states hence the name.
  • Highway: Typically just a road, although it can mean effectively a dual carriageway.
  • Gas: Short for 'Gasoline': Brits call it Petrol. Diesel is still diesel although you don't see it very much.
  • AC or A/C: Air-Conditioning, not Alternating Current. You might be advised to 'turn off AC' on  steep hills.
  • Gas Station: Petrol Station or Garage. Americans keep their cars in the garage, they don't put petrol in at a garage. They don't mend their cars in garages either. If an American needs their car fixing, then it's 'In the shop'.
  • Shops and Stores: To an American, a shop is a workshop. What Brits call a shop, Americans call a store.
  • ZIP code: What Brits call a Postcode. US petrol pumps will ask for your ZIP code. You don't have one. Therefore you can't pay at the pump.
  • Stop light: What Brits call a brake light (on the back of the car). This can also be confusing as some call a red traffic light a 'Stop light' as well. . .
  • Limey: Brit, English or UK person - from when the British navy gave limes to sailors in an attempt to prevent scurvy. I've never been sure if this is an insult or not - kind of like calling an American a 'Yank'. Why do you need to know this? A policeman may call you one . .

Driving an Automatic

If you're driven a European automatic, it's pretty much the same - although bear in mind that the gearstick ('Shifter') may be on the steering column. For the rest of you:

There is no clutch. The car changes gear for you. When you slow down and stop, it engages an 'automatic clutch' (simplified explanation) - don't worry, it won't stall. You can stop with your foot on the brake and the engine will keep running fine.


Automatics have a thing called 'surge' or 'roll'. If you are in 'D'rive and you take your foot off the brake, it will likely roll *forward*. Don't forget this, park in a car park, take your foot of the brake and curse as you roll forward into another car!

Quick 'I've just got off the plane and need to drive to the hotel' guide

Get in. There is no clutch. You don't need it. Foot on brake. Make sure shifter is in 'P'. Start engine. Keep foot on brake. Press lever/button on shifter and put into 'R' to go backwards or 'D' to go forwards. Foot off brake (car will start rolling in the direction you want - beware) and onto accelerator.

Accelerator to go faster. Brake to slow down and stop. When you stop at lights, in traffic etc, just keep your foot on the brake. Don't bother about 'Neutral' - no-one ever does.

To change from 'R' to 'D', foot on the brake, press lever/button and move the shifter.

When you get to where you're going, stop, keep foot on brake, put shifter in 'P', turn off engine.

More detailed guide and explanation:

To move the shifter, you usually need to press/pull the lever or button on the shifter. Some combinations (often R to D) don't need you to, but doing it every time isn't a problem.

To get in and out of 'P' (Park) you need to have your foot on the brake. You may need your foot on the brake to start thee engine

P=Park. Shift to this to start the engine and when you park the car and stop the engine. Leave the car in 'Park' not 'Neutral'. Often you can't get the key out without the transmission being in Park. If you stop the engine and can't get the key out, one reason is you might still be in 'D'

(Note: On some cars, 'P'=Park is a separate button off the shifter. On others if you stop at a low speed from reverse, the car will be 'helpful' and put itself in "P" when you stop)

D=Drive / Forwards. Use this to go forward. Just press the accelerator as usual. The car will change gear for you. Just pretend you have one huge gear if you like and ignore the rev-counter.

R=Reverse. Just what you think it is - like drive in the other direction. Be wary - reverse in an automatic can be faster than in a manual.

N=Neutral. I don't think I've ever used this! Unlike a manual (or 'stick shift') you don't start the car in N=Neutral, you use P=Park. Don't bother putting the car in neutral at traffic lights etc - just keep your foot on the brake. Neutral is really used for towing/pushing the car.

L and/or 4, 3, 2: These are your Low gears - used so the car can't change up further than the gear you've set it in. Used to 'engine brake' going down steep/long hills- you may see signs saying 'engage low gear'. Don't bother using these in normal driving - leave it in Drive.
(You may have 'flappy paddles' to move into 4,3,2 etc in some cars. In others you push the shifter left and right).

Freeways/Interstates and multi-lane highways

Lane Discipline - or lack of it

You can usually pass on both sides i.e. in any lane. Don't do it, but watch out for people weaving through traffic at speed - keep an eye on your mirrors.
Some states try and have a 'keep right unless overtaking' policy i.e. trying to drive on motorways a bit more like Europeans. This doesn't seem to have caught on with the US driving population.

Speed, Speeding and '5 over'

Helpful car rental staff sometimes say 'you're good for 5 over on the freeway' - which means if the limit is (say) 55 then you're unlikely to be stopped for doing 60 or less. This is not formal legal advice!

In some states, you must keep up with the traffic flow. This can be scary if all of the traffic is going 10mph over the speed limit!

In general, follow what everyone else does - which is a good guide to most situations!

In some states going slightly over the limit is a misdemeanour and a lot over is a felony. You don't want to be stopped for either.

HOV lanes / "Diamonds" painted on the road

See above


Some roads are toll roads - but you can't pay cash at all of them e.g. the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. You'll need to go online and pay the toll within a certain period of time. Don't think just because you're in a rental car you can ignore tolls - Avis, Hertz etc will chase you for them.

Speaking of rental cars, some have a thing called Plate Pass or similar. This means that you can just drive through toll gates (especially in the 'Tag' or 'Express' lanes) without stopping and your car license plate is read and recorded. This is sent, along with the bill, to the car rental company who will charge your credit card, together with a convenience fee of around $3 to $4 per day. Be aware that once you've gone through one toll, they will charge you the convenience fee for every following day until you give the car back - whether you've used toll roads or not.

Be aware, if you use plate pass for one $0.50 toll on day one of your 14 day holiday and never again, you could get a bill for nearly $50!

If you want to pay cash, keep a supply of quarters and $1 bills ("Singles") handy.

Tailgating and undertaking

Americans seem to drive a lot closer behind you on freeways than Brits do - it doesn't necessarily mean they are trying to 'push past'. A lot of the time, they are very patient and will either wait for you to pull over or just undertake you. Don't panic when someone undertakes you - it's normal.

Disappearing lanes and 'Right Lane MUST exit'

You might think that freeway driving would be relaxing but if you're in the right hand lane, watch out for the 'Right Lane MUST exit' (usually in yellow background) signs. The lane that you are in can suddenly be the 'you MUST turn off at the next junction' lane. You might have been in this lane for 100 miles - but nope, now it's going!

Keep alert. You can end up leaving freeways without intending to - and it can be hard to get back on.

Canadian comedian Kelly Monteith has a line "Hey, let's get 'em going 80 in the fast lane and then put up a sign saying 'lane ends in 10 feet'" - sometimes this seems like it's not far from the truth!

Fuelling up / Putting Petrol in

How hard can this be? Very!

Diesel is Green, Petrol/Gas is black on the pump nozzles/hoses!

This is the opposite way around from Britain! Don't get them mixed up. Most of the time you won't even see diesel and all pump hoses/nozzles will be black.

Fuel grades 87/89/92 etc

There is a LOT of info about this, but in general, just choose the cheapest one/lowest number, especially if you have a rental car. For those who remember 2, 3 and 4 stars, it's not like that. Nearly all cars run on 'regular' or the cheap one.

Lift up the leaver on the pump / pushing the fuel grade button.

If you're pulling the trigger but no gas/petrol is coming out, you often need to pull up a metal lever on the pump that is under where the nozzle goes when it's hanging on the pump. Push the lever back down again when you've finished. Note that when being helpful (and they nearly always are), Americans pronounce 'Lever' as 'Leh-Ver' not 'Lee-Ver' when they're telling you want to do.

Newer pumps have only one nozzle and you press a button with the number of the grade of fuel you want before you can fill up. Pick the lowest/cheapest one!

Paying with a credit card at the pump/pre-paying for fuel.

Most American petrol pumps won't let you pump fuel unless you've paid first or authorised a credit card.

If you try and pay at the pump with a UK credit card, chances are it won't work as it will most likely ask you for a 5-digit Zip code (What we call a post code). You won't have one of those as you don't live in the states.

Not all pumps ask for a Zip code but most do. The internet will tell you to enter 00000 or just the numeric bits of your UK code with zeroes on the end e.g. 12700 for W12 7RJ. They are usually wrong. It doesn't work.

Go inside and pay the cashier in advance (note the pump number). Come out and fill up.

Some US chains (ArCo am/pm for example) don't take credit cards - check first.

Gallons and US gallons.

Americans price and dispense fuel in gallons, not litres. A US gallon is not the same as a UK/ Imperial gallon! 1 US gallon is .82 UK gallons or 3.78 litres, not 4.55 litres like a UK gallon. Give them *some* slack when your car computer says you're only doing 20mpg.

Prices/Discount for cash/Sales Tax

Most gas stations seem to have a different price for gas, usually a few cents per gallon. The price you see on the sign might not match what you pay - they don't always put both prices on the big sign either.

You don't need to add sales tax to fuel, it's already priced in. Unlike shopping in a US store where you find what you pay is 7 to 8% more than the price on the shelf - unless you're in Oregon or a similar no-sales-tax state.

Fuel Economy

Even though US gallons are smaller, US cars can be really uneconomical compared to what you're used to, especially if you drive a small car, a diesel or both! Coming from a car that easily does 55 to 60mpg, seeing '22mpg' on the fuel computer was alarming.

Don't worry - they really are this inefficient - it's why fuel is so cheap!

Attendant service in Oregon and New Jersey** (check these states)

If you're on Oregon or New Jersey then you don't pump your own fuel. In fact you're legally not allowed to - an attendant must do it for you. Unlike every other person who does anything for you in
the US, people don't usually tip them although you can if you want.

Traffic Lights & Pedestrian Crossings

Don't run over pedestrians when the light goes green

This is not just general advice (See "Drive on the pavement") - there is one trick that the US shares with continental Europe and can really freak out Brits.

You wait at a red light to turn right (for whatever reason). The light goes green. As a Brit, you gun the engine and take off. WTF? There's a pedestrian in the middle of your road!

Yes, this is somehow by design: When your light goes green, so does their pedestrian crossing light for the road across yours. So you get a green to go right and they get a green to cross the road that you're turning into - at the same time. This is by design. I've no idea why but watch out for pedestrians when your light goes green.


Americans call the orange light 'Yellow' or 'Orange' - they use 'Amber' to refer to the jewellery/resin.

There is no Yellow/Amber light between Red for stop and green for 'Go' - it goes straight to green! The first time you'll think 'Did I miss Amber? Was I not concentrating?' nope, it doesn't happen.

Amber does come between green and red when it changes and you have to stop.


America is great for parking - it's not like Britain where using your car is a crime...

Parking Meters

This used to be a 'keep your car full of quarters and dimes' but many parking meters now take credit cards - and they don't need a ZIP code either. Just find a free one, put money in / use your card and park up

Reversing in

In general, Americans don't - and they have really useful herringbone/slanted spaces to help you out. Some car parks actually have 'don't reverse park' - this is because people aren't very good at it and it's to stop bumps and scratches.

Fire hydrants / Red paint on Kerbs

Don't park next to one, even if there is no sign - you might get towed away. Don't park next to a red painted Kerb either.

'Validated' Parking

Although most American shopping parking is free (as in no cost) some shopping malls (shopping centers) do charge you - and it can be expensive, especially in cities.

Validation means that when you buy something or use a restaurant, you can ask them to 'validate' your parking - they will process the ticket so that you don't have to pay (as a 'Thank you' for using their establishment). There is often a time limit on this (e.g. max 3 hours) so check the notices


(or "I couldn't find anywhere else for it to go")

Red Indicators

American cars often have red indicators where we would have orange. Some cars have one light for the night lights, the indicator and the brake light (Americans call it a 'stop light'). It just gets brighter or flashes. Sometimes I fail to notice a red flashing light as an indicator - make sure you don't. Some cars (especially foreign makes) have orange indicators.

Racing off at the front

Contrary to movies and big 'muscle cars', Americans don't seem to do this. In the UK quite often two cars next to each other on the front row of traffic lights will see who can drive off first and fastest - especially for men.
Americans just don't seem to do this - if you rev up and take off, you'll be on your own - or maybe with a policeman. This can be useful if you find yourself in the wrong lane and at the front - it's often possible to out-accelerate everyone even in a piece-of-junk rental car if you need to move over lanes.

Drinking and driving - and beware of alcohol cans and bottles in the car

You wouldn't be so stupid as to drink and drive - but your passengers might. Don't! or at least check the state rules. Often, you can't have opened containers/bottles/cans of alcohol in the car - even if no-one is drinking them. In some states, you can't even have closed containers - any alcohol must be locked in the boot/trunk. Really! Check the state law.

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